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Gold rush for investors at Olympic venue

Zhang Yu
Updated: Aug 20,2019 11:14 AM    China Daily

For Beijing residents Liu Guilai and his wife Yu Shuzhen, this summer was not too hot as they found a perfect place to escape the heat. Plus, it is not too far from the capital and has a number of leisure activities for retirees.

The couple, both in their 70s, left their home in Beijing during the scorching hot days in July and came to Chongli, Hebei province, about 200 kilometers northwest of the capital.

"If it was not for the Winter Olympic Games we probably would never have visited the place, let alone stayed here for some time," Liu said, adding that they used to spend the summer in northeastern China which has moderate temperature all year round.

Chongli in Zhangjiakou city, was in the past known for being an impoverished area, which people largely avoided due to the bitter cold and stinging winds.

But since 2015, when Beijing won the bid for the 24th Winter Olympic Games, Zhangjiakou has become a popular destination because of its co-host status. It will stage most of the Games' skiing events.

Liu's daughter, Yu Lei, and son-in-law are both skiing enthusiasts. After driving many times to Chongli to hit the slopes, they bought a small apartment in the area in 2017 to make their stays easier.

"In the winter, they come here for the skiing at the weekends, while this summer they sent us here to escape the heat," Liu said, adding a one-way car trip takes about three hours.

While it was the elderly couple's first trip to Chongli, they said it was nothing like their preconceptions about the region.

"The cool temperature and good air quality make us want to come next summer and we will even recommend the place to our friends," Liu said.

According to the local government, the average summer temperature in Chongli is 18 C, and the average concentration of PM2.5, a major indicator for measuring air quality, is 20 micrograms per cubic meter, consistently the best in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

Cool change

Liu and his family are not the only people attracted by Chongli's Olympic glow, cool weather and alpine environment.

More than 70 million tourists visited Zhangjiakou last year, over double the number in 2014, according to the city's bureau of statistics.

The status Chongli has earned from winning the Winter Olympics has not only attracted tourists. Investors in the tourism industry, skiing equipment manufacturers and job seekers are coming from home and abroad to take advantage of the development potential of the region.

Covering 2,334 square kilometers and with a population of 126,000, Chongli had been a poverty-stricken county for years. About 80 percent of the land is mountainous and only 7 percent is suitable for agriculture.

In the past, getting around was inconvenient and there was limited scope for development, according to the local government.

But now those disadvantages have been turned into advantages. The mountains have been developed for skiing in winter and outdoor sports, such as orienteering, camping, hiking, golf and cycling, in summer.

Wang Shizhuo, a ski instructor at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Chongli, has worked and lived in the district for five years. He doesn't plan to leave.

With 14 years' experience skiing in Northeastern China, Wang arrived in 2014 when the joint Beijing and Zhangjiakou bid for the Winter Olympics was still underway.

At the time he thought Chongli had great potential due to its proximity to Beijing.

"It was an emerging destination for winter sports, and even could be the top one in China in the future if the bid succeeds," Wang thought back then.

His hunch proved right. An increasing number of ski enthusiasts and tourists started arriving after the successful bid.

Wang said he was sure his future was in Chongli, and in 2016 he moved his wife and 5-year-old son from Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

During the last snow season, Wang was promoted to lead the ski school run by the resort.

He heads a team of 300 ski instructors. About a tenth of them are from foreign countries including New Zealand, France, Switzerland and South Korea.

They coached 33,000 students during the latest ski season, an increase of 43 percent on the 2017-2018 snow season.

"Most of the students are from other cities in Hebei, and neighboring Beijing and Tianjin," Wang said, adding that visitors from southern China and foreign countries have also increased over the past two years.

He has had to acquire new skills to meet tourists' needs, such as hiking, camping and cycling.

Wang Biao, Party secretary of the China Chongli Regional Committee, said Chongli now has seven major ski resorts, all ranked in the country's 20 best ski resorts. Four are in the top 10.

Business opportunities

The construction of infrastructure and facilities for the Games is in full swing. They include the cross-country, ski-jumping and biathlon facilities, the Olympic village - Taizicheng Snow Town - and a highspeed railway station.

By the end of this year, the high-speed railway linking Beijing to Zhangjiakou and Chongli district will begin operation. Travel time by train between the two cities will be cut to 50 minutes from the current three hours.

Driven by the winter sports boom, Chongli officially came out of poverty in May.

But Zhangjiakou officials have seen an opportunity to create a new economic engine driven by winter sports industries.

A new industrial park covering 211 hectares is being built for this purpose. It's located inside Zhangjiakou High-tech Industrial Development Zone, about 70 km southwest of Chongli.

The Winter Sports Equipment Industrial Park will cater to industries related to winter sports, including equipment manufacturing and research, tourism services and sports training and exhibitions, said Zong Zhenhua, deputy director of the zone.

"It will be the world's first place that focuses on the development of winter sports industries," Zong said, adding that investors would also be attracted by the Olympics.

More than 20 domestic and foreign companies have registered to base themselves in the park, including Technoalpin from Italy, a global leader in snow-making systems, MND Group from France, a ski lift manufacturer, and Tenson from Sweden, a maker of outdoor clothing.

Local governments are providing various services and preferential policies for the companies to help them become established in Zhangjiakou.

The local government can take care of everything for potential investors, from company registrations to building factories and offices for them, Zong said, adding they can get different incentives based on their development status.

He said Zhangjiakou has the ability to develop winter sports industries because of its advantages - such as traditional manufacturing industries - which can provide technical support and human resources.

MND Group has started manufacturing cables and snow-making equipment at a local company's factory using its equipment and workers.

However, Zong conceded developing winter sports industries was at an early stage.

He said there was no experienced workforce with the technical skills and professionalism to meet industry standards.

"What Zhangjiakou has now is great potential backed up by all the changes the Olympics has brought. The city has a solid industrial foundation and a great potential market nationwide," Zong said.